Why Mitch McConnell, Senate's top Republican, is so vulnerable at home

Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell is revered among Kentucky Republicans. But anti-incumbent sentiment is abroad in the land for the 2014 midterms, and a Democrat is charging hard.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky is seeking a sixth term, but polls show his popularity down and his likely Democratic opponent formidable.

Twenty-nine years. That’s how long minority leader Mitch McConnell, arguably the most powerful Republican in Washington, has represented Kentucky in the United States Senate, a record for that state.

As Senator McConnell seeks his sixth term, and a chance to become the majority leader of a GOP-controlled Senate, he is emphasizing that experience and position, first to fend off a tea party upstart in the May 20 GOP primary, then to beat back a Democratic challenger with whom he is tied in the polls.

But incumbency for McConnell is a two-edged sword, especially when – according to a poll last year – cockroaches are more popular than Congress. Americans’ views have mellowed only slightly since then.

McConnell’s opponents say he is at his most vulnerable now, when polls show more Kentucky voters disapprove of the job he’s doing than approve. He is expected to win his primary contest handily, but come November a broader electorate might decide that three decades is enough. That would be a stinging blow, reminiscent of the defeat of former Senate minority leader Tom Daschle (D) of South Dakota in 2004.

McConnell’s incumbency is “the big theme” of the campaign, says Ryan Alessi, a political reporter for Time Warner Cable’s network in Louisville. Incumbency-bashing is plentiful in the campaign of Republican Matt Bevin, a businessman who has the support of outside tea party groups such as FreedomWorks but who trails McConnell badly in the polls – by 32 points in a May NBC/Marist Poll of likely Republican voters.

Mr. Bevin’s main motivation in running is to reduce the national debt, at which McConnell has failed, he says in an interview. His ads end with the tag line: “Mitch McConnell: too liberal, too long.”

Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes, Kentucky’s young secretary of state, who has the powerhouse backing of Bill Clinton, urges a “switch” from Mitch, blaming him for the dysfunction in the nation’s capital.

“After being in Washington for nearly 30 years, it’s clear that Mitch McConnell has lost touch with Kentucky,” says Ms. Grimes’s spokeswoman, Charly Norton, who adds that Grimes is looking out for the Kentucky middle class and jobs. “Our campaign is Kentucky versus Washington,” she says.

No single reason explains McConnell’s low approval ratings – with range from 32 percent of registered voters to 41 percent, depending on the poll. Part of his unpopularity is due to the public’s low regard for Congress generally. Part is due to the odd political mix that is Kentucky, a conservative state with, traditionally, more registered Democrats than Republicans. In national elections, Kentuckians vote Republican – President Obama lost Kentucky by wide margins in 2008 and 2012. In state elections, however, they generally vote Democrat. Gov. Steve Beshear is a well-liked Democrat in his second term, and Democrats control the House in the state Legislature.

But Kentucky, which has a tea party stronghold in the north, is also the state that produced US Sen. Rand Paul, the libertarian who rode the tea party wave to Congress in 2010 and tops polls for potential GOP presidential candidates in 2016. McConnell backed someone else in the GOP Senate primary four years ago, and many “fans of Rand” haven’t forgotten that. Now they – led by Bevin – blast McConnell for caving in crises: for compromising on “Obamacare” in last fall’s partial government shutdown, on taxes and spending in the “fiscal cliff” debate last year, and on the debt ceiling in 2011.

Only Mr. Obama has a lower job approval rating than McConnell in Kentucky. This explains why “Team Mitch” wraps the incumbent’s past performance and future promise in an anti-Obama message: The senator saved 99 percent of Kentuckians from a tax hike (last year’s fiscal cliff deal with Vice President Joe Biden), he helped stop “bureaucrats” from ruining a favorite fishing area, and he’s fighting the president’s “war on coal” and Obamacare. That’s not to deny McConnell his personal deliverables. Universities, businesses, farmers – all have benefited from decades of the senator’s attention. “There is virtually no community, big, small or otherwise in Kentucky, that doesn’t have a personal story of interaction with Senator McConnell,” says Josh Holmes, a senior campaign adviser to McConnell.

But fighting Obama (and pinning down Bevin) is a main theme of the campaign. Go to a McConnell event, and it sounds as if you are listening to him on the Senate floor. Charismatic, he is not. But predictable in his anti-Obama rhetoric? You bet. And that hits home.

Take his recent appearance at Bowie Refined Coal in Irvine, on the edge of eastern Kentucky’s depressed coal country. The new plant, which processes coal, is a bright spot in a region that lost more than 10,000 jobs in the past year and has an unemployment rate of 14.5 percent. Reasons for the sudden loss of high-paying mining jobs are multiple and interrelated – from a drop in the price of natural gas, to a rise in the price of harder-to-mine coal, to regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency. McConnell somberly focused on the latter as he addressed smudge-faced coal workers.

The administration, he declared, has “an animus toward our way of life and what we do. And what I’m saying to you today, I could say to anybody anywhere in Kentucky, because the war on coal is not just a war on those who mine coal, it’s a war on our entire state.” Ninety percent of the state’s electricity is powered by coal, he said, resulting in low utility rates.

“These people need to be stopped,” he continued, asking the workers to let him lead the GOP charge and take control of the Senate. It was a clear sales pitch for his leadership status, an advantage his competitors cannot match.

As majority leader, McConnell said, he could rein in bureaucracy and government regulation and put Obama on the spot over coal. A GOP Congress might also force Obama – like Mr. Clinton before him – to move closer to Republicans on issues. Ultimately, of course, Republicans need to take back the White House, the senator told his audience.

He faced a receptive group. McConnell “does real good for eastern Kentucky,” says Chester Cody, a laid-off coal worker grateful for his new job at Bowie. “I think he’s the only one helping us keep the coal,” says Ronnie Stevens, a coal worker sitting next to his colleague.

But Kentuckians, when asked by a reporter, have a tough time naming what their senator has done for them lately. The Grimes campaign points out that an evocative McConnell ad touting his help for workers sickened at a nuclear fuel plant relates to steps he took more than a decade ago – a warmed-over issue that he used in his 2008 race.

“There’s this vague sense among voters that he’s powerful, and he can help out,” says Mr. Alessi, the political reporter. “His reputation is built on the ability to get deals done like the tobacco buyout” for Kentucky’s farmers – a signature issue from 2004.

When it comes to legacies, one in particular stands out: the building that houses the state GOP headquarters in the capital city of Frankfort, the Mitch McConnell Building.

Kentucky’s Republican Party is “the thing McConnell really did build himself,” Alessi says. It may also be the legacy that helps him most.

It was McConnell who turned the Kentucky GOP into a well-oiled machine that turned out winners. In 1985, when McConnell first went to Congress, he was the only GOP senator from Kentucky. Over in the House, four of the seven Kentucky seats were held by Democrats. Today, Republicans hold all but one House seat, and Senator Paul is the junior GOP senator alongside McConnell.

Meanwhile, Republicans control the state Senate and hope to flip the House.

McConnell is revered among Republicans, says Mr. Holmes, the adviser. “There basically is not a county-level office in this state where the Republican hasn’t had some interaction with Mitch McConnell on their way to elected office,” he says. They are grateful – and loyal.

Take Julie Raque Adams, a Kentucky House member running for state Senate. In 2002, when she was contemplating running for Louisville City Council, someone suggested she call the senator to ask for his advice.

She was skeptical. He’ll be too busy, she thought. But then she asked herself: What’s the worst that could happen? So she phoned his office, left a message, and 20 minutes later was flabbergasted when his office returned the call.

“He literally got down into the nitty-gritty,” she recalled. He asked about her district, the neighborhoods, and then suggested important issues to talk about in her campaign. She won’t ever forget his encouraging words: “ ‘Do not be afraid to run.… We need more women to run for office, and I will do anything I can to support you.’ ”

She ran, she won, and he has supported her ever since that first phone call. “I owe a debt of gratitude to him,” Ms. Adams says. “He’s been there for a lot of us, and now it’s our turn to be there for him.” Indeed, 64 of the 68 members of the GOP in the capitol have endorsed McConnell over Bevin.

So, too, has Paul, which helps inoculate the senior senator against Bevin’s renegade tea party backers. McConnell may have supported Paul’s competitor in 2010, but after the primary was over, the senator swung behind the candidate.

The primary has showcased McConnell’s tactical skill, says Jennifer Duffy, who tracks Senate races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. Those skills were evident back in 1984 when he was first elected to the Senate. Two weeks before the election, he was down by 22 points. Then he ran a humorous and down-home ad featuring bloodhounds trying to find his Democratic opponent – an incumbent who apparently didn’t show up for votes very often.

Similarly, the McConnell team has not let up on Bevin. The inexperienced Bevin has made it easy on McConnell, whose ads slam him for speaking at a cockfighting rally, misrepresenting his education on his résumé, and flip-flopping on the Wall Street bailout during the economic crisis.

In an interview, Bevin described what it is like to go up against McConnell’s machine:

“They tried to offer me any number of incentives not to do it,” not to run, he said. Bevin says he knows McConnell from years ago, when the senator tried to get him to run for Congress.

“You’re supposed to feel groomed and special, like you’ve been brought into the inner sanctum, and you get to kiss the ring,” Bevin said. “This is part of what’s wrong,” he went on. “I know the man. I know his tactics,” which Bevin describes as bullying and vindictive.

Grimes can expect a similarly tough competitor. McConnell is already defining her as an Obama clone – an image she’s fighting.

“McConnell’s campaign is going to be predominantly negative. He has two inexperienced opponents, with records that give him a decent amount of ammunition,” says Stephen Voss, an associate professor of political science at the University of Kentucky.

As secretary of state, Grimes is responsible for elections, bringing businesses to Kentucky, and educating about civics. No tough decisions there. On the campaign trail, she’s mastered the scripted speech, observers say, but she’s unsteady fielding questions.

But Grimes also has a weighty political legacy: her family. Her father is a well-known figure in Kentucky as a businessman and former leader of the state Democratic Party. He’s also a Friend of Bill, the last Democratic presidential candidate to win Kentucky. Clinton visited the state in February on behalf of Grimes. Also in Grimes’s corner – her grandmother, mother, and sisters. Women voters will give Grimes the edge in November, predicts Democratic state Rep. Kelly Flood.

In the end, Bevin’s voters – many of whom will likely “hold their nose” and swing behind McConnell – just might be enough to push this “Kentucky workhorse,” as his ads call him, over the finish line. But at this point, the race looks like a photo finish.

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